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(Don’t) Give Me Your Poor VI

Sixth installment in a two week discussion of the recent New York Times article “Generation Later, Poor Are Still Rare at Elite Colleges” by Richard Perez-Pena. Interested readers should check out our collection of posts about socio-economic issues related to admissions, from which I have plagiarized extensively.

“If you come from a family and a neighborhood where no one has gone to a fancy college, you have no way of knowing that’s even a possibility,” said Anthony W. Marx, president of the New York Public Library, and a former president of Amherst. “And if you go on their website, the first thing you’re going to look for is the sticker price. End of conversation.”

Does anyone else find Tony Marx as annoying as I do? Doubtful! After all, his main societal function is to be the courtier for the plutocrats who fund the New York Public Library, a gig for which he gets paid almost $800,000 per year. (Who knew that librarians did so well?)

And, of course, I am sad that Marx is no longer president of Amherst since he seemed well on his way to making Amherst a much less formidable competitor (here and here).

But the real sleaze here is Marx and others like him misleading poor students about the actual costs and benefits of elite colleges.

But even top private colleges with similar sticker prices differ enormously in net prices, related to how wealthy they are, so a family can find that an elite education is either dauntingly expensive or surprisingly affordable. In 2011-12, net prices paid by families with incomes under $48,000 averaged less than $4,000 at Harvard, which has the nation’s largest endowment, for example, and more than $27,000 at New York University, according to data compiled by the Department of Education.

Marx is concerned that poor students go to the NYU website and get scared by the tuition. I, on the other hand, am glad! To a large extent, NYU is a sleazy deal, especially if you are a poor student. The fact that people like Marx won’t even discuss these issues, won’t even mention that not all “fancy colleges” are created equal, makes me angry.

If you are poor, and you get in to Harvard (or Williams), then, obviously, you should go. It is free! But borrowing $100,000 (27k times 4 years plus tuition raises) to attend a “fancy college” like NYU is a very, very dicey proposition. Why doesn’t Marx tell poor students the truth?


Donors and Legacies

More on Amherst Dean of Admissions Tom Parker ’69:

Since [President Anthony] Marx came along, Parker has been speaking out about a virtually taboo subject: how top universities already bend their standards for all kinds of kids. There are the affirmative action programs for minorities, which most elite schools still run. There are also so-called legacy admits, for whom Amherst reserves roughly 10% of its seats, says Parker. Alumni kids get red-carpet treatment, often including a personal audience with Parker. Yet they rank as twos, on average, he says — meaning that some score three or less and wouldn’t be admitted on their academic credentials alone. But top universities simply can’t ignore legacy donations. “The way you finance a place like this is with alumni contributions,” says Parker.


1) Affirmative action programs which “most elite schools still run.” What is with the “most”? I can’t think of a single elite school that does not practice affirmative action for URMs. Should we trust what the writer tells us on other “facts” when she gets this one so wrong?

2) Amherst reserves (precisely?) 10% of the seat for legacies? Interesting. Recall that Williams has approximately 12% legacies for many years. I think that the increasing ratio of graduates to students since the doubling of the size of the college 30 years ago means that legacies today are much more qualified than they were 20 years ago. The fact that Amherst has an explicit 10% quota make it more plausible that Williams does the same. I bet that the international quota of 6% was set to be exactly half of the legacy quota, if there is one.

3) It is not clear if legacy applicants or legacy enrollees have AR 2 on average. I think it is enrollees. I heard from a fellow representative at a college fair last fall that the average SAT score for Amherst legacy accepted students was, like Williams, very high. We have done the math on this before. Short answer is that legacies get some special preference, but nowhere near what URMs and tip athletes receive.

4) Parker knows, and should admit, that fund-raising provides a very tenuous rational for legacy preferences. Consider the current campaign at Williams. Note (page 2) how $200 million out of the $400 million in total money is projected to come from 20 donors. (These families and ones like them get special admission advantages, whether or not they are legacies.) Note the 20,000+ donors (almost all alums) who give less than $100,000. None of these donors matter much to the overall health of the campaign. As long as the College takes care of the big donors, its financial health is not significantly impacted by legacy preferences or the lack thereof.

Recall our post, from Michael Lewis, on this topic in the context of Harvard.

But here’s the rub: Unless they fork over a sensationally huge pile of dough, donors are unlikely to get anything in return from Harvard. A few thousand bucks is unlikely to impress anyone. Even 50 grand won’t improve their children’s odds. (The Harvard application from the legacy whose parents have given less than millions goes into the same pile as the one from the legacy whose parents have given nothing.)

The issues of preferences for big donors (alum and not) is a largely separate issue from those for alums who give less than $1 million. Parker does a disservice by conflating the two.


Academic Credentials

I am drawn to the article on Amherst President Marx like a rugger to beer.

The centerpiece of Marx’s crusade is to change what happens in the converted 19th century farmhouse where Amherst’s 14 admissions officers work. Marx is convinced that the process is stacked against poor kids. But changing that threatens the entire admissions rationale of elite colleges. The key issue: how much to lower academic credentials. Amherst got to No. 2 in the rankings in part because of its incoming students’ stellar grades and test scores. Those factors are just one part of college rankings, so Amherst might slip only a few spots if other selective colleges don’t follow its lead. Still, that could hurt. “If Marx lets in more low-income kids, he’s going to risk his school’s reputation,” cautions Anthony Carnevale, a senior fellow at the National Center on Education & the Economy.

Letting in smart low-income kids does nothing to Amherst’s reputation (except to improve it). Letting in not-so-smart low-income kids has the potential to be devastating to that reputation.

Bringing in more low-income kids would require added compromise. To meet Marx’s 25% goal, Amherst would have to take more threes [on a 1-7 scale], says Parker, meaning those who may have straight As but SATs as low as 1360. Even though Amherst already does so for minorities, legacies, and athletes, faculty members are worried. “This could be a radical departure that fundamentally changes the character of our institution,” warns physics professor David Hall, who heads the Faculty Committee on Admissions & Financial Aid.

Hall is right to be worried. If you think that, on average students with 1360 SATs do as well as though with 1560s, then you don’t know what you are talking about. People like Marx like to tell stories about specific students who come to Amherst with low scores and then thrive, winning academic awards, writing excellent theses, being named to Phi Beta Kappa. And such stories are certainly true. But they do not represent the average result. In fact, the typical academic performance of 3s is certainly worse than that for 1s, even during senior year (by which time any disadvantage in terms of preparation should have been alleviated).

The only way to meaningfully increase the percentage of students from the bottom quarter of the income distribution is to admit a bunch of applicants that you currently reject, applicants that are not as academically talented/focused as your other students.

Marx hopes to ease such concerns by finding more top-notch low-income applicants. Certainly, many students have never even heard of Amherst. So Marx is asking his admissions officers to visit more low-income high schools. And he’s enlisting Amherst students in a tele-mentoring program in which they walk seniors from those schools through the college application process. Marx also started using QuestBridge, a Palo Alto (Calif.) nonprofit that has enlisted 8,000 high school teachers to identify talented low-income students for elite colleges.

More delusions! But, of course, it depends on what you mean by “top-notch.” There are thousands of low income students with, say, 1250 SATs and high school grades to match who would love to come to Amherst, especially for free. Let them all in and Amherst will be a different place.

Although the competition for talented low income students is not as tough as that for URMs or helmet sport athletes, it is getting there. Does Marx really think that more visits to bad high schools are going to help? Amherst (and Williams) might be able to accomplish something on the margin, convincing a smart low income kid that she is better off at an LAC than at an Ivy. But the tyranny of numbers remains. There are just not enough low income applicants to go around, just as there are not enough URMs and hockey players. Amherst might be able to steal a couple from its competitors, but not enough to meaningfully change the overall distribution.

Unless, that is, Marx succeeds in changing the admissions criteria in use. If I were a Amherst faculty member, I would be worried.


Thumb on the Scale

The article on Amherst President Marx does a good job of illustrating how radical he really is.

Since Marx, now 46, took over in 2003 as Amherst’s youngest president ever, he has waged a ceaseless crusade to make the college a leader in welcoming more lower-income students.

We are all in favor of making Amherst (and Williams) more welcoming, for rich and poor, dark purple and light purple, foreign and domestic. Yet Marx is after much more.

It’s a formidable goal considering how programmed the place is to seek out the best and the brightest: A record 6,300 students applied for just 431 spots in last fall’s entering class.

Jarring, eh? Why does a commitment for seeking out “the best and the brightest” create problems in creating a “welcoming” environment? If anything, the opposite is the case. If you have clear and objective criteria, applied to all applicants, for academic talent, then everyone should feel equal precisely because everyone is equal. Problems arise, of course, when different standards apply to different groups.

Now, Marx is challenging everything from an admissions process tilted toward affluent students to social customs that divide rich and poor students on campus. Essentially, he has set in motion a new affirmative action initiative, this time based on class rather than race.

Good luck with that! Again, I think that this is the best news for Williams in its competition with Amherst in a generation. Give them the less smart (but “poorer”) applicants. We’ll take the smarter (but “richer”) applicants. No prizes for guessing how this will turn out in a generation or two.

And what does it mean to claim that the admissions process is “tilted toward affluent students?” I don’t think it is. Does Amherst Director of Admissions Tom Parker ’69 discriminate against poor kids? Penalize them if they apply for financial aid? Decrease their academic rank if they go to a lousy public high school?

No! People who see tilts and other injustices in elite admissions have a highly naive view of the possibilities once a student hits 17. These modern day Marxists have a (stupid) a priori belief that the abilities which lead to academic success at Amherst are uniformly distributed across the population. Alas, these abilities — high IQ, a love of learning, disciplined work habits — are very non-uniformly distributed. The children of people in the top half of the income distribution are much more likely to have these abilities than the children of people in the bottom half. This effect is magnified in the top and bottom income deciles.

Smart people have smart children because intelligence like height is largely inherited. People who love learning have children who love learning because they teach them to do the same, both directly and via example. You can bet that children who are read to by their parents each day are much more likely to end up at Amherst than children who are not so fortunate. Hard-working people have hard-working children because these parents make their children work hard, thereby teaching them the value of hard work, of ambition and striving.

Now, it turns out that high IQ, a love of learning and hard work — for shorthand, let’s call these attributes “merit” — are also correlated with wealth. Or, rather, it is unlikely that someone blessed with these three attributes will end up in the bottom 25% of the income distribution.

But people like Marx seem blind to this reality. They really want to believe that there are thousands of undiscovered gems lying in the bottom income quartile, just waiting for open-minded souls (like Marx) to discover them and, Professor Higgins-like, transform them into polished stones.

Marx already has won over many of Amherst’s largely liberal professors to the basic concept. He’s hoping that by the fall, faculty and trustees will approve a formal plan to give more of Amherst’s coveted slots, perhaps as many as 25%, to students poor enough to qualify for a Pell Grant (usually meaning a family income of less than $40,000 a year). Doing so would vault Amherst far ahead of other elite privates such as Harvard University, where 10% of undergrads are low-income. “If we are sufficiently aggressive, we will force the rest of elite higher education to be much more serious about this,” says Marx.

Delusional! There is no way that Amherst, just by letting in a group of students that it used to reject — and who used to, after rejection, go to perfectly nice albeit less competitive colleges — is going to “force” Harvard or Williams to do anything. Newsflash: As long as the students who Harvard and Williams want still go to Harvard and Williams, they won’t care what Amherst does.

Now, Amherst could change the game by being much more generous in terms of financial (read: merit) aid. For example, it could create something like the Tyng and use it to convince 50 poor students who would have gone to Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford to choose Amherst instead. (Even though such students get full rides at HYPS, the allure of free graduate school would have an appeal.) If Amherst did that, HYPS might be forced to respond. Yet that is not the (public) plan

Bowen, who now heads the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a big funder of higher-education research, is on a crusade to win over admissions officers with statistics showing that low-income students succeed at elite colleges. “America’s most selective institutions need to put a thumb on the scale” in favor of these students, Bowen argues.

Consider the case of two students, Jane and Sarah, who attend the same high school. Both have fathers that make $40,000 a year. But one (Jane) is smarter, works harder, gets better grades and test scores than the other. Shouldn’t Jane be accepted into Amherst in preference to Sarah? Currently, she presumably is. But what if Jane has a mother who also teaches high school while Sarah’s mother is a home-maker. Since this extra income puts Jane’s family outside of Pell-grant range, should Amherst accept Sarah instead?

The only way to meaningful increase the percentage of students from the bottom 40% of the income distribution is to accept more Sarah’s and reject more Jane’s. I am almost glad that Amherst is apparently about to start doing so. It makes it all the more likely that Jane will become an Eph.



Fascinating, must-read article on Tony Marx’s campaign to remake Amherst. (Hat tip to an anonymous Eph parent.)

When Marx finally met the [presidential search] committee, he made an impassioned appeal. Elite U.S. colleges such as Amherst, he said, are perpetuating deep inequalities in American society. They equate success with serving the privileged elite and have largely abandoned talented youth from poor families, he charged. This deepens the country’s growing class divisions and exacerbates the long-term decline in economic and social mobility. Feeling he had nothing to lose since he hadn’t sought the job, Marx exhorted the trustees to tackle the problem head-on. “I’m not interested in being a custodian over a privileged place,” he remembers telling the gathering of wealthy alums and academic stars that day.

There are lots of amazing details here. More later. In the meantime:

1) Whenever I get frustrated with Morty, I should just step back and thank my lucky aim-high stars that we are not stuck with Marx. He would drive me nuts.

2) Does this mark the start of the downfall of Amherst? The basic thrust of the article is that Marx is going to start letting in lots of 1350 SAT students from lower income families while rejecting more 1550 SAT students from higher income families. (Actually, the story is more complex than that, but let’s save it for another day.) This may or may not be moral. It may or may not improve the quality of the education at Amherst. But it seems inevitable that it will reduce Amherst’s ranking, at US News and elsewhere. Right now, Williams and Amherst split 50/50 in head-to-head competition over students. I would predict that if Amherst’s academic selectivity goes down far enough, Williams’ winning percentage will increase.

If, in a decade, Williams worries as much about competition from Amherst as it does today about competition from Wesleyan, the reason will certainly be Anthony Marx’s egalitarian notions of merit and higher education.


Face Time

Amherst President Anthony Marx is quoted in a story about Yale’s decision to match Harvard’s lead in decreasing costs for low income students.

“Amherst, Harvard and Yale and schools like them recognize that we are not and have not been doing enough to ensure access to the best universities and colleges in the land regardless of ability to pay,” Marx said. “There are still lots of really smart kids from poor backgrounds not applying to these schools because they think they can’t afford it.”


  1. I hate to see the phrase “Amherst, Harvard and Yale” anywhere, but maybe that’s just me.
  2. Since Morty is one of the leading experts in the field of higher education, I would expect to see him quoted more often in stories like this. I haven’t.
  3. One cynical interpretation is that what Amherst and other schools are most interested in is increasing the number of applications they get (from poor kids, rich kids, smart kids, stupid kids, any kids). More applicants means more rejections means lower yield means higher US New ranking and prestige.
  4. Schools like HYAW haven’t been “doing enough to ensure access”? But these schools have, for more than 20 years, been “need blind.” They have claimed, truthfully I believe, to have met the financial needs of every admitted student. What more can they do?

Of course, what is really going on here is increased competition among selective colleges for smart, poor(ish) students. Schools have decided that they want to have more students who are as smart (or almost as smart) as the rich kids who apply. Alas, there are a limitted number of such students. So, now that they can’t collude, they must compete.

Turns out that these desirable students are — Surprise! — in no rush to borrow a lot of money to go to college. Most students admitted by Harvard are also students admitted by Williams so, if Williams wants them to attend, it has no choice but to match Harvard’s generosity.

Back in the day, poor applicants had it much harder. The schools colluded and offered each accepted student the same package, more or less. They each expected you to take out $20,000, or whatever, in loans and, if you wanted to go to an elite school, you had little choice.

The world is a better place now.


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